Sunday, August 24, 2008

The mind games we can do without

ON Aug 9, I was not able to attend the monthly meeting of the Bar Council as my mother and mother-in-law were unwell. A forum entitled "Conversion to Islam: Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution, Subashini and Shamala Revisited" was held on the same day in the Bar Council's secretariat building.

A day later, my mother-in-law died peacefully at her home in Yong Peng at the age of 89.

For the last year, my mother-in-law was patiently attended to by a local doctor, Dr Mutalib Mohamed. Dr Mutalib had been going to the house a few times a week after she became bedridden to clean and dress her wounds arising from bed sores.

Each time, he had to painstakingly incise the dead cells and dress the sores, some of which were the size of a small crater. He did not charge much even though the job was distasteful. But he did it. Alas, my mother-in-law lapsed into a semi-comatose state three months ago after a stroke, but Dr Mutalib continued to monitor her. He also had to change the Ryle's tube regularly so that she could be fed. There were also a few emergency occasions when his services were willingly rendered.

By going around this predominantly Chinese community to attend to other aged patients like my mother-in-law, the urbane and good-looking Dr Mutalib no doubt earned the respect and admiration of many.

Little did he know that his simple service has gone a long way to project the good side of the religion he professes -- Islam. In fact, it was almost unthinkable for a non-Malay in Yong Peng to visit and consult a Malay doctor a few decades ago. Of course, he and his wife also took the trouble to pay their last respects to his departed patient.

But the Malays are not only polite and forgiving. They are a grateful people, too. I remember in 2004, I represented for free Al-Yatama Bhd which runs orphanages in Johor in a four-year court battle.

When we successfully obtained a court order to compensate Al-Yatama for RM65 million and to repossess their 1,092ha of land after entering into a failed joint venture in 1996 ( "Charity firm recovers land in suit" -- NST, Feb 3, 2004), two septuagenarian directors of its board, Abdul Rahman Abbas and Sulaiman Hassan, were ever so grateful.

They cried with joy and hugged me outside the courtroom. Grabbing my hands, they cried in Malay: "Mr Roger, Allah will bless you!" I was touched by their kind words.

While it cannot be denied that religion occupies a central place in the lives of the Malays, I thought what the protesters did on Aug 9 did not fairly and kindly portray the amiable side of the ordinary Malay folk. I was rather alarmed by what I saw in the videos taken of the incident.

One of their leaders, Zulkifli Nordin, a former one-term Bar Council member himself, allegedly urged the already agitated protesters to storm the building if he and a few others did not re-emerge to inform the rest that they had stopped the forum. Two kerosene-filled bottles were also left outside.

Zulklifi's explanation that he was there to defend his religion was wholly misplaced. Islam was never challenged let alone attacked in this multiracial forum. Some of the speakers and participants who took part in the forum were Muslims, and quite correctly, they took to the floor to speak for Islam in a mature, respectable and civilised manner.

One of them was Professor Mehrun Siraj, wife of former Bar Council chairman Sulaiman Abdullah. Though small in build, she was obviously not a pusillanimous lady when she stood up to the imperious Zulklifi and gang, saying: "Muslims must act based on the Quran and Sunnah. We must behave well. Muslims must not be rude. I am ashamed of your behaviour. Islam does not condone this."

Sadly, by stoking racial sentiments and hurling racist remarks, the raucous protesters had only tarnished the good name of Islam. Zulklifi's actions have also opened the eyes of the people to see how Parti Keadilan Rakyat could govern this country when their members hold divergent views on race and religion.

Zulklifi's other oft-repeated statement that the Quran is more important than the Federal Constitution also runs contrary to the views held even by the many human rights activists within his own party, PKR. This gave rise to the impression, wrongly or correctly, that Zulklifi advocates a government based on syariah.

Of course, the Bar Council will not lodge any police report against them for holding an illegal assembly or for the seditious words that they had uttered. Neither will the Bar Council seek an apology from PKR, Pas or Umno. To do so would be against the stand taken by the Bar all this while on freedom of expression and assembly and the Sedition Act.

In a way, Aug 9 should be celebrated as a day in which democracy flourished in this country if not for the protesters who, when exercising their right to object to the forum, had also sought to prevent others from expressing their similar right to hold it, even though their views differed on the matter.

It is now apposite to stress that the Bar Council is not anti-Islam or any religion at all. Like the cabinet, members of the Bar Council are bound by the principle of collective responsibility.

When the Bar Council gave the green light to its Family Committee to hold the forum, little did we realise that it would be so grossly misinterpreted. After all, this was not the first time the council had organised a forum on this vexed issue.

The council had innocuously thought the composition of the panellists was rather balanced as two of the original speakers were former syariah judge Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar, and Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (Ikim) Syariah Law Centre director Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad.

In hindsight, we could have titled the forum more appropriately. In this sense, I personally acknowledge that we could have been more sensitive. Perhaps a title like "Conflict of civil and syariah laws after Subashini and Shamala" would have been more apt.

Unfortunately, in these days, we are caught in the mind game that perception is more important than practice and fact.

The fact is that the Malaysian Bar has spoken up for Muslims, too. We are a loud critic of the Iraq war as well as the mistreatment of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Further, the only religious event organised by the Bar committees is the buka puasa.

Similarly, the police are caught in this problem with perception. No doubt, their actions on Aug 9 will be compared with the efforts they took to break up the Bersih and Hindraf demonstrations.

But the fact is after the March 8 general election, there appeared to be a more tolerant approach in the way in which the authorities viewed public demonstrations. What the authorities must always bear in mind is that their response to any similar event must be consistent when upholding the rule of law.

Having said that, as we approach yet another Merdeka, I believe we Malaysians can progress further and learn to look at sensitive issues in a civilised and mature manner. It may take time, but the Bar Council, being entrusted to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour, will continue to promote this practice of civil dialogue.

Published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2008

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